Last Night by the Strokes is probably one of the great songs of the aughts. It also pretty famously poaches its intro from Tom Petty’s “American Girl.” I happen to like “American Girl” better. It doesn’t seem to appear on Rolling Stones’ list of 500 Greatest Songs, (Really!?), so this week I called an audible and looked at “American Girl” instead.
I hear Foreigner’s “I Want to Know What Love Is,” and think “middle school slow dance.” It’s a perfect song to sway to. It also comes in at #479 on Rolling Stone’s list of the Greatest Songs of All Time. Written by guitarist Mick Jones, it is Foreigner’s biggest hit. As a classic power Ballad, the song’s chords are pretty straight forward, but it does some noteworthy things with how it places those chords in time. My middle school associations aside, it’s definitely worth checking out.
I admit it. I felt a bit lazy about last week without sending along a sheet to go with the song. But there were only two chords in the song! How much can one explain about two chords? Apparently, that was a set up because this weeks song is comprised of a whopping total of one chords.
This week we arrive at #480 on Rolling Stones list of Greatest songs, Beastie Boys’ song “Sabotage.” It’s the final song they put together for their Album “Ill communication.” They had the instrumental part kicking around for a while, but no lyrics or words to go with it.
The story goes that their producer and long time collaborator, Mario Caldato Jr, was constantly pushing them to get a move on and finish their work. By the end of an album’s worth of work dealing with this Adam Horovitz got the devil in him. He decided it would be funny to scream about how Mario was trying to Sabotage them by not letting them work through their creative process while Mario was standing ten feet away tracking the recording. So like the Beasties say in another shout out on the track, Root Down; “That’s a record ‘cause of Mario.”
“I wanted to write a silly song,” is how Rick James came up with Super Freak according to Musician Magazine. He says everything else for his album “Street Songs” was done, but he felt it needed something else.
Wanting to write a silly song is striking to me. In my experience, it seems songwriters rarely want to their songs to be silly or funny.
They want to be taken seriously.
In James’s case messing around created a song recognized as one of the greatest ever. That could be food for thought next time I find my muse offering something I think is “silly,” while I’m writing.
Anyway, this week we’ve landed at 481 on Rolling Stones list of the Greatest Songs of all time.
The Musical Idea:
A song like Rick Jame’s “Super Freak” poses some challenges to how I usually break down a song. It’s mostly a two chord vamp (Am and G), along with a killer bass line. Harmonically, that’s a not a lot to explain.
To say there’s a not a lot to explain makes it sound simple. Yet, asked to play it, I’d definitely struggle. So is it simple, or am I not as skilled as I’d like to think?
Let’s put that aside for a moment.
One of the coolest things about learning songs today (versus twenty years ago) is that someone has taken the time to learn almost every song I want to know something about. And that person is excited to share their knowledge on Youtube. I learned Super Freak’s bass line from a guy named Eric Blackmon.
Then I learned an acoustic arrangement of the chords and bass from “Ten Thumbs Productions.”
(The bass line is a wee bit off in the chorus, oh well).
Now, back to answering what’s complicated about Super Freak, it’s the rhythm and groove. If you aren’t accustomed to playing Rick James’s funk punk syncopations it could take a while to get Super Freak under your fingers.
No one can create a perfect facsimile of another person’s performance, and I’m not likely to write a song like Super Freak, but that’s the cool thing about learning it. It expands my toolkit. It adds depth to my musical knowledge that may never show up as obviously as a funk song—but might show up in some other way. Maybe a song that is more simple chorally than what I’d usually do (i.e. just one or two chords), and more rhythmically complex.